Wieliczka is a salt mine located in southern Poland, close to the city of Krakow.
Because of its great role in the history of Poland and the country’s wealth, it has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1978.
Wieliczka is not an ordinary salt mine. Although it is officially closed for commercial use, small amounts of salt are still occasionally extracted. And this makes it one of the oldest active mines in Europe and in the world.
It became a popular tourist attraction, meaning that over one million tourists visit the salt mine every year. So if you visit Krakow and want to experience one unusual underground adventure, Wieliczka is the right place for you.
History of the Wieliczka salt mine
Traces of sodium chloride (i.e. salt) are from the Neolithic period about 6,000 years ago. At the beginning of the 13th century, salt production began at the Wieliczka mine and continued until the 2000s.
King Casimir III the Great (reigned 1333–1370) made a great contribution to the development of the mine, by giving it many privileges and by passing “Laws of the Krakow Saltworks”. He cared for miners and in 1363, he founded a hospital near the salt mine. In this period, about 8,000 tonnes of salt were produced annually.
Over the years, the mine was developed and many chambers were dug. Also, different techniques were used, such as the Hungarian horse treadmill and the Saxon treadmill for hauling salt to the surface. Yes, maybe it seems strange, but the horses lived and worked in the salt mine, as well!
During World War II, Germans used the mine as an underground facility for war-related manufacturing. But a few days after the Nazi army left the town in February 1945, the mine started producing the salt.
In the following years, the production of salt was increased, until the huge flood in 1992 made a lot of problems in the mine, and also in the Wieliczka town.
At the beginning of the 2000s, it was closed for commercial use and become the property of the State Treasury, the “Wieliczka” Salt Mine Joint Stock Company.
Today, Wieliczka is a great Polish historical monument. And together with the Salt Mine Health Resort, it is a great tourist attraction. But let me tell you something more about the beginnings of this salt mine.
The legend about the salt mine
Well, there is one interesting story about the origin of the salt mine.
According to legend, the Hungarian princess Kinga was supposed to marry to Bolesław V the Chaste, the Prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry, she asked her father, King Béla IV of Hungary, to give her a lump of salt, since salt was scarce in Poland.
So the princess Kinga went to a father’s salt mine and threw her engagement ring from Bolesław in one of the shafts. When she arrived in Kraków, she asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they come upon a rock. And a miracle happened: the miners find a lump of salt with the princess’s ring! From that moment Kinga became the patron saint of salt miners in Poland.
Tour around the Wieliczka salt mine
The entire mine has nine levels. It reaches a depth of 327 m and is over 300 km long. There are two thousand chambers in the mine, but the tourists can see only a small part.
The salt mine can be visited in organized tours, such as Tourist Route, Mine’s Route, Pilgrim’s Route, and Graduation tower. The guide is always with you, talking about the mine’s history. You cannot walk around the mine on your own.
As most miners spent a lot of time working in the mine, they began constructing numerous chapels, carved and decorated the chambers, from the floor to the ceiling. So when you step in the salt mine, there is an unusual world in front of you. The labyrinth of corridors with wooden timbers, the salt walls, the chambers and sculptures made of salt…
And you can lick any wall to be sure that you are in real salt mine 🙂
So, are you ready to go for a walk?
The tourist route
The most popular route is the tourist route. It is about 2 km long and consists of three levels. It lasts approximately two hours, or 3 km and three hours if you visit the Krakow Saltworks Museum, as well. The tour is available in Polish, English, German, French, Italian, Russian and Spanish.
This route consists of visiting about 20 chambers, and some of them are Mikolaj Kopernik, King Casimir, Janowice, Urszula chamber, the chamber with Holly Cross chapel, Michalowice, Izabela chamber, Jozef Pilsudski chamber, etc.
The first level
The underground adventure begins by descending a series of 380 wooden and narrow stairs to the first Bono level, which is 64 meters (210 ft) below ground level. But don’t worry, when coming back, a small elevator will take you up to the surface in 30 seconds!
Walking around the corridors you can see various salt sculptures.
And there are some sculptures which represent the segments of the miner’s life in the salt mine.
The second level
The second level is between 90 and 101 meters below ground level. There you can see the most famous, the grandest and the most impressive St. Kinga’s chamber. It is 35 meters long, 15 meters wide and 11 meters high.
Also, it is an underground church with an altar, various sculptures, and an interesting ornate floor.
A few religious reliefs are carved in the walls, and one of them is “The Last supper”.
The amazing thing is that only three men made this underground masterpiece over 30 years in the early 1900s.
And everything is made of salt, even five big crystallized chandeliers!
St. Kinga chamber is very acoustic which makes it a perfect place for holding concerts. Also, many different events, conferences, fashion shows, sports events, and business meetings are organized in this and some other chambers in the mine. This chamber can host up to 400 persons, and the fairy tale weddings are organized here, as well.
Walking around the mine we found an unusual view of the underground lakes. Well, that was a really fantastic moment. With the sound of the Chopin music and the reflection of the lights show in the dark, visitors can see the shores of the saline lakes and wooden stairs which lead to the lake.
And somewhere in the mine corridors, you can see little salt dwarf statues, working in the salt mine!
The third level
The timber construction used to maintain the mine is fascinating.
Going down by the wooden stairs, we came to the third Kazanow level, about 130 m (425 ft) below ground level.
And there you can see one more lake and entrance in the Jozef Pilsudski grotto from the beginning of the 19th century.
But there is one tragic story about underground lakes. Once there were organized sailing tours in boats, but one boat with tourists capsized and they fell into the water. Unfortunately, the tourists did not survive because of the huge percentage of salt in the water. And since that accident, sailing tours are forbidden.
Souvenirs made of salt
At the end of the tour, you can find a coffee shop, a restaurant, and a shop where you can buy various souvenirs made of salt. I was skeptical about the beauty products of the Dermic Salt cosmetic line. But when I came back home, I wished that I had bought more of them! Bath salts and salt-based facial and body creams are really fantastic. Except for the salt mixed with spices for the food, an interesting souvenir is a little three with tiny lumps of salt, which brings good luck. You can also buy souvenirs and beauty products in the shop on the surface.
If you like, you can continue the journey to the Krakow Saltworks Museum, where you can see the ancient mining tools and instruments as well.
After you finish the tour, there are eight hundred steps to climb. But as I have mentioned before, there is an elevator from the 17th century called the ‘Danilowicz Shaft’ which takes you to the surface in 30 seconds. It is tiny and dark inside, and a little bit claustrophobic, but that was an integral part of the miner’s life.
“Wieliczka” Salt Mine Health Resort
We all know how the sea air is good for our health.
In the salt mine, there is a specific microclimate making it a perfect place for the underground health resort. Actually, in 1958, professor Mieczyslaw Skulimowski started treating the patients in the salt chambers and initiated a new method in the medicine – subterraneotherapy, the first of its kind in the world.
So today you can have therapy on Level III, in 135 meters underground, if you suffer from bronchial asthma, pulmonary disease, sinus problems, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, and allergic diseases. In “Wieliczka” Salt Mine Health Resort, you can spend there one or several days. You can even sleep in the therapeutic microclimate of salt excavations. Of course, first, you have to send a request and make the payment. You can read more about salt therapy here.
If you don’t want to sleep underground, on the surface, there is The Grand Sal **** Hotel. It is convenient if you are planning to have the salt therapies and visit the salt mine or Krakow as well.
Well, there are some things you should know before visiting the salt mine.
- The temperature in the salt mine is between 17° to 18°c, so take warm clothes. Also, wear comfortable shoes because there are 800 wooden steps during the routes, and if you remember, the first 380 steps are at the beginning of the route.
- Going down the stairs in this part of the route could make you feel a bit claustrophobic. But later, in corridors and chambers, there is enough space for a normal walk. When you are coming back to the surface, it can be a bit unpleasant in the dark elevator you can feel unpleasant, but it takes only 30 seconds.
- Owing to salt evaporation in the mine, the air is fresh and unpolluted, which is perfect for the respiratory system.
- Smoking and using an open fire in the mine are strictly forbidden. Well, you are in mine, don’t forget it!
- Pet animals are not allowed entrance in the salt mine.
- If you have luggage, you can leave it in the storage room, which is located on the surface near the Daniłowicz Shaft.
- Even though this is a salt mine, it is also a very important historical and cultural monument. So, be a good visitor and don’t write on the walls, dig it or destroy anything you see there.
- The routes are organized and a guide is always with you. Pay attention and don’t leave a group. The corridors look almost the same and you can get lost easily.
There are four ways to visit and explore Wieliczka salt mine:
Tourist Route: the most popular route, I explained this route at the beginning.
Mine’s Route: it lasts 3 hours, and visitors get a protective coverall and mining equipment: a lamp, a POG absorber, and a helmet. They have an opportunity to experience the daily routine of miner’s life and work.
Pilgrim’s Route: it is a religious route with prayers in the chapels in the salt mine and visits to the amazing St. Kinga chapel.
Graduation tower: this route is a very pleasant walk and a form of inhalation therapy, because of the natural brine mist that forms in the area, which is similar to the air at the seacoast. Only this route is not organized, and visitors could walk without a guide.
So you can choose the route depending on your interests and available time.
It is always good to make a reservation if you are coming as a group, or you can buy tickets on-line.
The price ticket for the adult foreign tourists is 93 PLN (about 22 EUR), and for the polish tourists are 66 PLN (about 16 EUR). There are some special discounts for children, students, seniors, and family. You can see more about the prices here. And if you want to take photos in the salt mine, you have to pay an additional 10 PLN (about 2.35 EUR).
How to get to Wieliczka
Wieliczka is located 13 km from Krakow. You can visit it by organized tours from Krakow, or you can organize a trip yourself.
There is a public bus 304 at the intervals of 20 minutes which departs in the vicinity of the shopping mall Galeria Krakowska. It takes about 33 minutes from Krakow to Wieliczka.
Also, you can catch a train from the main railway station (Krakow Glowny) and a trip takes about 30 minutes. Or you can take a minivan which departs in the vicinity of the Main Railway Station.
Why you should visit Wieliczka?
Once upon a time, a large part of Europe was covered by the sea. During many geological changes and tectonic activities, about 13.6 million years ago, the sea receded, the water evaporated and the salt began to settle gradually. It is believed that the salt deposits in the Wieliczka stretch of 10 km and a width of several hundred meters to 1.5 km.
Today the visitors could see only less than 2 percent of the mine. It is unbelievable experience walking around the corridors with salt walls, see saline lakes and imagine what the miner’s life looks like. Well, it was not an easy life for sure.
No matter which route you choose, visiting Wieliczka is a real underground adventure, spiced with the salt.